Racism Plays a Big Part in our Politics. Period.

If you haven’t read it, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a fantastic essay on Barack Obama’s relationship to race and racism in the latest issue of The Atlantic. There’s too much to quote, but this paragraph captures the thesis:

In a democracy, so the saying goes, the people get the government they deserve. Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.

The power and symbolism of Obama’s election is compromised by the extent to which his presidency has been shaped by white expectations and white racism. Obama can’t show anger, he can’t propose policies tailored to African Americans and he can’t talk about race. In other words, he can’t remind white Americans that their president is a black man as much as anything else.

At the risk of sounding cynical, I expect that Coates will inspire howls of unfairness from the right. It’s almost forbidden to discuss the role racism has played in shaping opposition to Obama. Conservatives dismiss such concerns as “playing the race card”—and use it as an opportunity to accuse liberals of racism—while more neutral commentators note that Bill Clinton also faced a rabid conservative opposition. But as Coates points out, no one called Clinton a “food stamp president” or attacked his health care plan as “reparations.” Local lawmakers didn’t circulate racist jokes about the former Arkansas governor, and right-wing provocateurs didn’t accuse Clinton of fomenting an anti-white race war.

Of course, race isn’t the reason conservatives oppose Obama, but it shapes the nature of their opposition. The right wing would have exploded against Hillary Clinton as well. But they wouldn’t have waged a three-year campaign to discredit her citizenship.

With that said, I’m honestly amazed that—for many people—it’s beyond the pale to accuse a political party of exploiting racism for political gain. We’re only 47 years removed from the official end of Jim Crow and the routine assassination of black political leaders. This year’s college graduates are the children of men and women who remember—or experienced—the race riots of the late 1960s and 70s. The baby boomers—including the large majority of our lawmakers—were children when Emmett Till was murdered, teenagers when George Wallace promised to defend segregation in perpetuity, and adults when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed for his belief in the humanity of black people.

Five and a half million Americans are 85 or older. In the years they were born—assuming the oldest is 110 (several thousand Americans fit that bill)—1,413 African Americans were lynched. And that’s a rough estimate; the number is almost certainly higher. For nearly a third of our country’s history, this was a common occurence:

Interracial marriage was illegal in large swaths of the country when Barack Obama Sr. married Ann Dunham.

Mitt Romney was 31 when the Church of Latter Day Saints allowed African American priests, and repudiated early leader Brigham Young’s pronouncement that “The Lord had cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood.”

Nancy Pelosi grew up in segregated Baltimore.

Mitch McConnell was sixteen when his high school admitted its first black students.

Of course there are politicians and political parties that capitalize on racism. Why wouldn’t they? The end of our state-sanctioned racial caste system is a recent event in our history; more recent than Medicare or Medicaid, more recent than the advent of computers, more recent than the interstate highway system, and more recent than Social Security. Taken in the broad terms of a nation’s life, we’re only a few weeks removed from the widespread acceptance of white supremacy.

Race remains a potent way to activate voters and motivate them to the polls—see Mitt Romney’s current campaign against Obama’s fictional attack on welfare. To believe otherwise—and to see this country as a place that’s moved past its history—is absurd.

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